Monday, December 22, 2008

Disagreement and Emotions

Let us first examine an unemotional disagreement, and a possible way to resolve it: X disagrees with something that I say. We both present our cases, come to stage where the facts are cleared up, and the opinions identified as such. If the opinions conflict, and the matter under dispute does not require a further course of action (e.g. a disagreement about the tastefulness of a past meal), one can agree to disagree. After all, they are just opinions. Disagreement about facts should be cleared up, as far as possible (depending on the importance of the debate).

If there is a further course of action to be undertaken (e.g. if the disagreement is about a vacation plan), the action can be planned with some of those opinions being disregarded, and others adjusted to some extent, with mutual agreement. If there is no agreement about which (or whose) opinions are to be given lesser validity, usually the person who has more of a stake in the decision, has more of time, energy, money to contribute, and who takes responsibility for its consequences, decides. The decision can also be made easier by considering, electing or nominating a person as authoritative, or in the worst case, by the random toss of a coin.


Let us now examine an emotional disagreement. A disagreement is emotional where emotions of the parties involved are contrasting. I am not going to talk about a situation where I intentionally provoke someone into a highly charged state and then revel in the conflict. That is not disagreement, but sadism.

X is feeling bad for some reason, whereas I am feeling fine. If that reason has nothing to do with my behavior or any act of mine, I (like most people) find it easy to talk to X without feeling bad myself. I can rationally explain the situation, list out various alternatives with their pros and cons, and in general care for him without upsetting myself. I can then leave X to come out of his bad mood. Or if I am a "normal" person, i can empathize with him without getting into too much of a sorry state myself.

The last case, when X is emotionally hurt because of an act of mine, is the interesting one.

Let's say that I do (or say) something, which is not intentionally harmful to X, but harms him nevertheless (physically, financially, emotionally, etc.). An example of inadvertent physical harm is dropping a glass of water on his clothes. An example of inadvertent financial harm is if I hit someone's parked car when reversing my car. X can get emotionally upset about such unemotional acts.

An example of inadvertent emotional harm is me reading a book when he wants to go somewhere together, and him thereby feeling lonely or undervalued.

Inadvertent physical or financial harm (even though involving bad feelings) is easily resolved, if X realizes that the harm was inadvertent and if I agree to compensate him. It is the inadvertent emotional harm which is the hardest to resolve.

Let's say I am related to X. I.e. X knows me, values my association, cares about me, etc. (and vice-versa). This close association is usually required for one's feelings to be hurt.

In this case, the following sequence is the typical start of a fight amongst adults.

X: Why did you do that? I am hurt.
I: I didn't mean to hurt you.
X: But you did hurt me. Aren't you sorry?
I: What for?
X: You don't care about my feelings. (A close association between human beings implicitly assumes that people care about each others' feelings.)

Now what happens? What do YOU do in the above situation?


In such cases, X quickly assumes that I intended the emotional harm. X feeling bad rapidly results in me feeling bad because:

1. I feel controlled and unable to protect my autonomy.
2. I feel castigated for my intentions when I did not have those intentions.
3. I feel emotionally distanced and disapproved of.
4. I feel powerless to control the present situation.

To get back to feeling good, the easiest way is for me to convince X that he should not feel bad about me. I can employ various compensatory tricks to do it, e.g. apologize, give X a gift, try to humor him, try to deflect his mind, etc.

The core insight is to realize that I am now working to resolve the situation not because X is feeling bad, but because I am feeling bad and I want to get back to feeling good. However, since my emotional state is demonstrably dependent upon X's, therefore I don't feel comfortable till he is again feeling good. So, instead of working on myself, I start working on him.

The hardest is for me to accept responsibility for my feeling bad and to

1. Stop feeling controlled.
2. Stop feeling castigated.
3. Stop feeling distanced.
4. Stop needing X's approval (and of others in general).
5. Stop feeling responsible for X's feelings.

And in the final analysis,

6. Stop fearing X's disassociation from me.

The above are really not possible without me giving up "me". "I" am my approval, "I" am my emotions, "I" am my relationships and emotional responsibilities, "I" am my fears.

The above changes in oneself (or rather, the above intentions of self-immolation) require so much hard work, self-investigation and rebellion against the established norms of humanity that frequently people choose death over them. They require, as someone rightly said, nerves of steel.

When I give up on the above Herculean tasks, and start getting X's emotions back in shape, the game is back in familiar territory. X knows that his bad feelings have gotten to me.

If I just request or ask X to stop feeling bad, and I do not indulge in the game of humoring his feelings, X will almost never agree to that. X can start feeling worse and worse till I finally give in, or till X breaks down. X correctly perceives the above admonition to not feel bad as a form of control ("Yeah, so you can rest easy?"), just as I correctly perceive X's feeling bad as a form of control ("Why are you giving me hell?").

Once the controlling game begins, and the power play is in full swing, the fight becomes uglier and uglier, till one of us can take it no more. Some of us also indulge in tactics like sullen retreat, "die another day", resignation to one's "fate", etc. All these are easier than working on oneself.


Emotional blackmail need not exist only in extreme cases. Emotional manipulation is something that a human being (right from childhood) indulges in everyday.

I haven't read this book, but can say with confidence that Fear, Obligation and Guilt are not tactics that only bad people use against good people. We all use them. These are greater factors in our daily living than any of us will ever care to admit.

1 comment:

srid said...

"An example of inadvertent emotional harm is me reading a book when he wants to go somewhere together, and him thereby feeling lonely or undervalued."

This scenario is very familiar to me.

Being a loner myself, when a friend or a group of friends ask me out for some informal social gathering and when I am not feeling like going out (usually), I would feel bad for 1) saying "No, I'd rather do X alone at home" or 2) Well, ok, I will come.

Time to look at that unpleasant feeling (rather than the response) itself. This business is fun!